The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier

I picked out The House on the Strand because I wanted to participate in the Daphne du Maurier reading week hosted by Ali in May, but for various reasons could not post this review in time. However, I was glad to have read this book, since it turned out to be quite excellent.

The House on the Strand is an excellent, engrossing story of a man literally caught between two worlds, where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the central character.

When the book opens Richard (Dick) Young, our narrator, is at a crossroads in his life. He is on a sabbatical, having left a plum publishing in London, possibly suffering from burnout. For rest and relaxation, he is spending the summer at a country home called Kilmarth that belongs to his good friend, the charismatic Magnus. Magnus is now a successful scientist, and the two strike up an agreement. Dick can spend the holidays at the house with his family – Vita, his American wife and his stepsons – who are scheduled to join him later. In return, Dick has to agree to become a test subject for a new psychedelic drug that is the focus of Magnus’ research.

The drug will transport Dick back in time, in this case the fourteenth century, but merely as an observer, and he will not be able to participate in the actual events that unfold there. Magnus also warns him of the side effects that are likely to occur the moment Dick is violently brought back to the present – nausea, dizziness, trembling and so on.

As Dick, highly influenced by the more strong willed Magnus, starts consuming the drug, his trips to the past, to the 14th century begin to take on a vivid, mesmeric quality.

The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.

I had expected – if I had expected anything – a transformation of another kind: a tranquil sense of wellbeing, the blurred intoxication of a dream, with everything about me misty, ill defined; not this tremendous impact, a reality more vivid than anything hitherto experienced, sleeping or awake.

Dick is entranced by that era, it’s depiction of courtly intrigues, murder, infidelity, and particularly danger to a beautiful noblewoman by the name of Isolda Carminowe with whom Dick is besotted.

Dick’s primary guide in this era, if you will, is a steward called Roger who acts as a liaison between various family members, who although closely related, are at odds with one another. Isolda Carminowe, in particular, married to Oliver Carminowe, is engaged in a secret affair with Otto Bodrugan. The latter is also married with a son, and had rebelled to overthrow the King in a failed attempt. These aspects begin to take a fast hold on our narrator.

Slowly but surely, that 14th century sphere, with its people and landscapes, starts to thrill Dick to the point of addiction.

This, I think, was the essence of what it meant to me. To be bound, yet free; to be alone, yet in their company; to be born in my own time yet living, unknown, in theirs.

When Vita and the boys surprise him by landing at the house a few days earlier than expected, all of Dick’s best laid plans of experimenting with the drug go awry. While he mechanically performs his duties of a father and husband, arranging activities for his family to enjoy, it’s clear he is increasingly fraught with anxiety and that his mind is elsewhere.

Vita senses this, and her perceptive questioning slowly begins to drive Dick up the wall. Despite the difficulty of being by himself, Dick does manage to find some opportunities to experiment secretly. But the growing frequency with which he does so complicates matters and Dick’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In his confused state of mind, the two worlds begin to merge. This both alarms Vita and alienates Dick driving a further wedge into their marriage.

When Magnus conveys his desire to come and spend the weekend with them, the stage is set for an unforeseen, dramatic and horrific chain of events.

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is du Maurier’s evocation of landscapes in both the time periods. Across six centuries, the landscape has, of course, irrevocably altered, and yet its core essence has endured. For instance, where there are rows of houses along the sea now, they did not exist then because it was all a body of water all those years ago, and this has been brilliantly portrayed by the author.

The other fascinating point is the concept of time travel. Du Maurier has cleverly employed this trick…it’s not the time travel aspect in itself that interests her, but what it signifies – an escape from the present reality of stasis, uncertainty, and bitterness.

Magnus is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, filled with existential angst. Vita’s brother Joe has offered him a job in his publishing firm in New York, which Vita encourages him to accept given that he has a family to support, but Dick remains vary of the sameness of the new job, and the prospect of starting afresh in a completely new country fails to entice him.

As he keeps postponing his intentions of making that critical decision, the lure of the psychedelic drug and its escape to another realm, a much simpler one as perceived by him, intoxicates Dick pulling him deeper into an abyss.

“The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn’t want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting antidote to both.”

I’ll admit though that while the 14th century was a source of constant fascination for Dick, I found those sections to be the least interesting in the book. Somehow, the people seemed one-dimensional, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that Dick was just a casual observer there and could not really interact with those characters nor could they perceive his presence.

To me the present, modern day world of Dick – his personal dilemma and his on-the-edge relationship with Vita – had much more depth and was therefore very satisfying and absorbing, notably for the way du Maurier has effectively created an atmosphere of chilling unease and creeping dread.

The House on the Strand, then, is a wonderful heady concoction of history, horror and time travel highlighting to greater effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt us in the present, but for Dick, the consequences might just prove deadlier, paving the way for his downfall.

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

Hurricane Season caught my eye as soon as it was published and the slew of positive reviews only fuelled my appetite. Not surprisingly, it has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize and widely touted to win it.

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. The novel is set in the village of La Matosa – a few miles from the town or city of Villa – a decrepit place of abject poverty dotted with roughly built shacks and surrounded by sugarcane fields.

In the first chapter, the shortest of the eight, a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal. The identity of the corpse is no big secret, the boys immediately identify it as that of the Witch.

The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.

One of the rumours surrounding the Witch, which assumes mythical proportions, is the alleged wealth that she is concealing – a wealth that comprises gold and various other treasures, which she likely inherited from her mother the Old Witch after the latter murdered her husband. And yet while these tales of hidden wealth refuse to die down, they don’t somehow match up to the filthy conditions prevalent in her home.

The village, however, continues to be fascinated with the Witch. The women visit her home to consult her about a myriad of illnesses and also to discuss domestic issues, while the men get attracted to the drug fuelled parties she regularly hosts.

The murder of the Witch then forms the base upon which the bulk of the novel rests. After the first couple of chapters, we are presented with four different perspectives (and these are the longest chapters in the novel). Each of these narratives circles closer to the Witch’s murder, throwing more light, and illuminating the motives behind it.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. What these narratives also do is paint a grim picture of an ugly village mired in poverty and crime, a brutal world where it is increasing difficult for its people to rise above their bleak circumstances.  

The central character in these four accounts is Luismi, a boy in his teens, and we are given an inkling of his involvement in the crime in the first narrative itself – that of his elder cousin Yesenia. Yesenia is the eldest of her siblings, brought up by their grandmother, who treats them poorly but dotes on her grandson Luismi the same way she doted on Luismi’s father. This results in a deep seated resentment towards Luismi as Yesenia laments her fate and tries to paint Luismi’s true colours to their grandmother but in vain.

The second chapter centers around Munra, who is Luismi’s stepfather and crippled by an accident. Although Luismi’s relationship with his mother is strained, he nevertheless resides with them. Through Munra, Luismi is depicted as a young man addicted to drugs that leaves him dazed most of the time and under the influence of a young girl who he shacks up with, a girl not to be trusted.

The third chapter focuses on this young girl Norma and we learn of the circumstances leading to how she ends up with Luismi. And the fourth account is that of Brando, Luismi’s friend and also complicit in the crime against the Witch.

Luismi is clearly the focal point in these chapters, and yet we are never given his perspective, we always see him through the lens of others. For the most part he comes across as completely drug addled and spaced out harbouring dreams of a job in an oil company promised to him by an ‘engineer friend’. And yet every narrative brings out a different side to him driving home the possibility that he is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Violence and foul language practically drips on every page. Men regularly hurl insults and beat women, and the younger girls are not spared from physical and sexual abuse either. It’s a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and casual violence ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future. In the village of La Matosa particularly, the men hold no meaningful jobs and waste away in drugs, drink and prostitutes. The women latch on to men, get pregnant regularly but this only accentuates their woes as the burden of raising kids and holding on to meager paying jobs falls on them.

…what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-coloured tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her body would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet another open mouth demanding food and whingeing…

The only thriving establishments around La Matosa are highway dives and brothels, which are also magnets for drug peddlers.

Of the four narratives, the chapter on Norma and Brando are particularly disturbing and sometimes difficult to stomach – the one on Norma more so because it delves deeper into the deviant mind of a child molester.

And yet despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless. She does not mince words but depicts a small claustrophobic world in the back of beyond just the way it is.

It’s a book that deserves its place on the International Booker shortlist.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.

But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.

Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.

Copenhagen Trilogy 1

The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.

In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.

The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.

Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.

The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.

Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.

When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.

What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:

‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’

Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.

Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.

Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.

In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.

Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.

It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.

That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.

Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.

Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.

Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.

If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.

In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.

The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…

I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.

In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.

One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…

The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.

Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.

There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.

In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.

This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.

We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.

It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction.  Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.

In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).

Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.

Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.

These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.

It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…

I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.

The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.

There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.

I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since, the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely as long as I live.

The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.

Copenhagen Trilogy 2

 

Patrick Melrose – Edward St Aubyn

These five Patrick Melrose novels, penned by Edward St Aubyn, easily rank among my favourite books of all time. The central character Patrick Melrose is an upper class anti-hero, troubled and vulnerable.

Patrick Melrose books
Picador Editions

THE NOVELS

It begins with the wonderfully titled book Never Mind. Here, Patrick is a 5 year old child and is in rural France staying with his spaced out mother and his monstrous father. The book focuses on David Melrose’s cruelty especially on his wife Eleanor and the sexual abuse of his son Patrick, which is sufficiently implied but never explicitly detailed. At the centre of this is a dinner with friends where some more characters are introduced – the insufferable Nicholas Pratt and his young girlfriend Bridget, and the couple Victor and Anne. It all goes wrong, and David Melrose manages to antagonise his guests.

The second book is called Bad News. Here, Patrick Melrose is in his 20s and a drug addict. He learns his father is dead, and has to travel to New York to collect his ashes. It chronicles Patrick’s struggles through addiction, as he experiments with cocaine, heroin, and Quaaludes, with horrific and sometimes hilarious results.

The third book is Some Hope. Patrick Melrose is off drugs, although the spectre of his father and the abuse still haunts him. Pratt makes sure he is invited to the party thrown by Bridget (who has climbed the social ranks) for her husband Sonny in a country mansion. There are other notable characters at the party namely the Princess Margaret, who uncannily displays a moment of cruelty almost similar to that of David Melrose in the first book. The party is the focal point of this book, and is suffused with witty dialogues, and sarcasm aimed at the upper class.

The fourth book is Mother’s Milk. It is set many years later. Patrick is now married to Mary with two young sons Robert (a precocious, observant child), and Thomas. Patrick’s mother Eleanor is aged, ill, and in her final years. Patrick learns that she has left her inheritance and her house to the hack Seamus and his Foundation. The irony is not lost on Patrick – his mother believes in doing social good and donating to social causes but did nothing to protect young Patrick from his abusive father. Patrick also struggles with parenthood, and his relationship with his wife who he feels is prioritizing their young son Thomas over him.

The fifth and final book is At Last, and offers some sort of a redemption for Patrick. His mother Eleanor has just died, and it’s her funeral. Other episodes in the past are also referenced to – his efforts to come clean from alcoholism, and the possibility of making amends with his family.

Despite the dark, disturbing subject matter, Aubyn manages to make these novels quite special. What makes them stand out is the liberal dose of caustic wit, irony and black humour sprinkled throughout. Plus, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the prose is pristine and elegant. Much of it is autobiographical, as Aubyn has stated in his interviews that he was repeatedly raped by his father, to which his mother responded that she was raped too.

Patrick Melrose
Film-Book Tie-In

THE TV ADAPTATION

Early this year, these novels were adapted into a five-part TV series called Patrick Melrose and starred Benedict Cumberbatch, who is a fan of these novels and wanted to bring them to the screen. The series were nominated for the Emmys this year.

Melrose novels adaptation
Film-Book Tie-Ins

I just finished seeing them over the weekend. The casting is spot on and the performances are top notch. Cumberbatch particularly stands out, which is hardly surprising.

Benedict At Last
A Still from the Patrick Melrose TV Series

In the TV series, the second book Bad News has been shown as Part One, while Never Mind (the first book) is Part Two in the series. Cumberbatch has convincingly portrayed the frenetic role of a drug addict; the cravings and withdrawal symptoms in the first episode, to a quieter, more nuanced performance in the last two series as he looks to exorcise his demons and find solace and redemption.

Benedict At Last Two
The Melrose Family in the TV Series